Friday, May 22, 2009

More Observations from the MLA Convention!

Heidi Herr 

The MLA convention in Ocean City is the very first library conference I have ever attended, and I found it to be a great experience as the various sessions expounded on situations I have experienced both at work and through my studies at UMD’s I-School.  Indeed, I found some of the sessions to be so absorbing as to totally ignore the constant noise of the participants in the other big event in town, the speed-happy, fast car drivin’ attendants of OC’s annual cruiser’s week! 

The first session I attended, aside from the dynamic conversation with New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber (who I might add has mastered the art of name-dropping without it seeming like name-dropping), was a fascinating presentation on Frederick County Public Libraries’ foray in mobile reference.  The FCPL received a grant to launch a six-month mobile reference service, utilizing small computers and Vocera communication badges to contact other library staff when needed.  The library offered 21 hours of mobile reference a week, in which a librarian would walk around the stacks and study areas equipped with the mobile reference gadgets to see if anyone was in need of assistance.  The results, based on 7,584 reference contacts, were very impressive, with an 11% increase in circulating materials, 49% increase in database usage, and a 67% decrease in in-house referrals.  The librarians felt this test was successful because it not only promoted cross-training among participating library staff, but it also made patrons feel much more at ease with asking for help.  The main branch of the FCPL was the first public library in Maryland to offer this particular service, and is now adding mobile reference to its featured services.

I also attended Blog Like You Mean It, which Mark Cyzyk discussed in his blog entry. Another worthwhile session was Business Resources for the Literature Lover, in which three librarians walked all of us hapless humanities-types through business reference case studies.  The case studies involved reference situations with characters from literature, including everyone’s favorite Pekingese, Tricky Wu, from “All Creatures Great and Small”, who wanted to know where to find information about pet supply market shares, and Bob Crotchet, who wanted to explore whether working at Starbucks was a better option than continuing as an assistant to a certain Mr. Scrooge!  Needless to say, the reference librarian saved the day in each case study, ensuring all inquiring patrons a happy ending.

Alas, happy endings were not always in the cards for the patrons discussed in the session called Millenials’ Mysterious Search Habits.  Lucy Holman, a librarian at University of Baltimore’s Langsdale Library, discussed her research on the search skills of 21 undergraduates.  She observed students searching for information and asked them to describe their information-seeking processes. Holman’s results seemed to agree with other studies I have read in my library school classes, such as the prevalence of Google as a mental model for younger people, the inclination to search instead of browse, the inflated view of search skills found among undergraduates, and the perception that if the website looks good, then the information must be reliable. 

Holman mentioned some anecdotes that managed to bring forth simultaneous feelings of mirth and horror among the attendees, including one undergraduate’s remark that he preferred searching on the web because librarians hide information behind call numbers! Another anecdote mentioned was of a student researching information on Republican and Democratic energy policies, with the student using information found on a Chevron site for his paper.  He did not know that Chevron is an oil company, and he did not think to look into who the authors of the site were because the site looked reputable.  Another rather interesting finding was how polarizing Wikipedia is for younger people, with some students viewing it as an unreliable resource to stay away from at all cost (it seemed that some of their librarians and instructors were over zealous in their cautions against Wikipedia), whereas others use it all the time.  The session ended on a bit of down-note, with some librarians commenting that it is useless to attempt to teach students to use library resources if instructors are willing to accept questionable resources for projects.

The last session I attended was the only one where seemingly calm librarians became fractious – Protect Patron Privacy: It’s the Law!  Though the speaker’s lecture caused rather cantankerous comments from some attendees, I personally thought the presentation to be quite informative as it dealt with state and federal privacy laws and their implications in libraries.  Of particular interest, and what really appeared to steam some people, was the speaker’s discussion on situations where librarians broke privacy laws, resulting in devastating consequences for patrons.

All in all, the convention was a great experience, and the venue was quite good as it was within walking distance to Dumser’s fabulous milkshakes!

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